McKAY, Hugh Victor (1865-1926)

McKAY, Hugh Victor (1865-1926)
inventor of the Sunshine harvester
was born at Raywood, Victoria, on 21 August 1865. He was the fifth of the 12 children of Nathaniel McKay who had been a stonemason and then a miner, before becoming a small farmer about the end of 1865. He built a house of rough slabs roofed with bark and there his son grew up, became an efficient ploughman, and began to manage his father's farm at 18 years of age. His education had been confined to a comparatively short period at the little country state school at Drummartin, supplemented by some tuition at home. His father had a hard struggle, but everyone in the family helped, conditions improved, a reaper and binder was purchased, and later on a stripper. This had been invented by John Ridley (q.v.) many years before, and as the boy drove it he began to consider whether it might be possible to make a machine which would gather, thresh, and clean the grain as it went through the crop. He was only 17 when he told his father that he was confident that a machine of this kind could be built. With the help of his brother a rough hut was put up, and there the two young men made a machine with parts from old strippers and winnowers, forging other iron parts, and shaping the wood-work themselves. Their father was able to help them in squaring and setting the frame, and adjusting the bearings. Each problem was tackled and worked out as it occurred, and in February 1884, drawn by two horses, the little machine stripped, threshed and cleaned the grain from two acres of land. It worked almost perfectly, the parts co-ordinating and running smoothly from the beginning.
McKay had, however, no capital and the problem was how to put his invention on the market. A few were made by McCalman and Garde, plough makers, and by other manufacturers, but it was not until 1887, when he obtained a premium from the Victorian government for the best combined harvesting machine, that McKay was able to think seriously of starting for himself. He worked with one fitter for some time, and in 1891 was established in Dawson-street, Ballarat, under the name of McKay's Harvesting Machine Co. Ltd. About 1892-3 the model which afterwards became known as the Sunshine Harvester took shape. Gradually the business grew until in 1905 about 400 hands were employed at Ballarat. In the following year the factory was removed to Braybrook, afterwards known as Sunshine, partly because an export trade was growing and the question of freight became more important; and partly because the new site being outside the then metropolitan area, the factory did not come under wages board regulations. It was not that McKay objected to paying a full wage, but because he liked to feel that the factory was under his own control. For a similar reason he fought his men when the strike took place in 1911. He believed in the open shop and though only twelve out of his 1000 employees were not unionists, he took the stand that he would not himself force any man to join a union nor would he allow anyone else to force him. He was, however, thoroughly interested in the welfare of his men and parcelled out land at Sunshine into allotments with 50 feet of frontage, and paid for the roads, water reticulation, and electric lighting. By 1926 Sunshine was to become a town with over 4000 inhabitants. In 1913 McKay stood for the house of representatives at Ballarat but was beaten by the Labour candidate by a few votes. In the same year he made possible the erection of a technical school at Sunshine, and during the 1914-18 war he converted his factory to the manufacturing of transport and ambulance wagons, water-carts, portable kitchens, trenching tools, and munitions. He was a member of the business board of administration, defence department 1917-18, and was chairman of the stores disposal board in London in 1919. He was also for some Years vice-president of the chamber of manufacturers, Melbourne, and a director of well-known companies. In March 1925 he went to England and became seriously ill. He was brought back to Australia, but never recovered his health and died at Sunbury on 21 May 1926. He married Sarah Irene Graves, who survived him with two sons and a daughter. He was created C.B.E. in 1918. His will was proved at over £1,400,000. Under it provision was made for a charitable trust expected to have an income of about £10,000 a year. This was to be devoted to improving the conditions of life in inland Australia, the advancement of agricultural education, and charitable works in Sunshine or any other place where manufacturing may be established by the company.
McKay was a man of great tenacity of purpose and strength of character. He was a strict disciplinarian but scrupulously just. He built up the largest agricultural implement manufactury in the southern hemisphere, the buildings of which covered 28 acres of land in the year of his death. In the garden [in] front of the factory is the original small bark-roofed hut in which the first harvester was fashioned in 1884.
The Argus, Melbourne, 22 May and 6 August 1926; A Farm Smithy: A Record of Vision and Pluck.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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